by Raj Ranade
“You think you know the story,” announces the trailer for The Cabin in the Woods. “Think again!” Or, you know, don’t. There are things about this new horror satire from writer/fanboy-hero Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and director Drew Goddard that are genuinely innovative and clever, things that certainly make it worth seeing, but the movie has an obnoxious tendency to pat itself on the back for scoring satirical points that were a little hoary when the Scream series was making them 15 years ago. (Minor spoilers follow, although nothing here is as shockingly unpredictable as the marketing would have you believe).
There’s two parallel storylines here. The first is as generic as the title, with nubile young things representing a typical horror-movie societal cross-section (jock, stoner, nerd, good and bad girl, etc) heading to the titular location, where supernatural baddies are waiting to cross-section them. The second is the film’s main source of intrigue – in a mysterious NORAD-style government facility, office drones (the key ones played by the great character actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) seem to be monitoring and maybe even influencing the decisions of the horny campers, a duty which they treat with the seriousness (and the competence) that you might expect from a Michael Scott. (The office workers all labor under an unseen figure known as The Director, whose job title is less a nudge to the ribs than a shiv accompanied by an exaggerated wink).
The suspense in the movie comes from figuring out exactly how and why these two storylines are intersecting. The film’s final act, in which these plot strands fully intertwine, really is a delight – without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the effect might be akin to dropping acid while ensconced in the horror movie aisle of your favorite video rental emporium (shout-outs to Premiere Home Video on Euclid!).
There’s a certain amount of tedium in getting to that point, though. Whedon is a witty writer who ensures that humor gushes as regularly as the red stuff here, and the cast (particularly Fran Kranz, as the paranoid stoner proved right) is more charming than your average zombie fodder (which, I realize, is saying essentially nothing). But Whedon and Goddard are so occupied with their meta-narrative that the actual kids-in-the-woods stuff ends being as bland as you probably expected (and yes, I am aware that it is dull and uninspired on purpose, but dull and uninspired in the service of a point is still dull and uninspired). The old Mystery Science Theater 3000 routine just doesn’t work as well when the people pointing and laughing are doing so with work of their own creation. Still, I can’t help recommending The Cabin in the Woods because of that fever-dream payoff and because of its general willingness to stray from the norm and be refreshingly different – though you might wait to rent it so you can fast forward through the dull bits. (Note: The Ace Weekly does not endorse the use of illicit substances while visiting your favorite movie rental store).
Unlike The Cabin in the Woods, there is nothing about Lockout that even remotely approaches originality (or intelligence, for that matter). The film focuses on an ex-CIA operative trying to rescue the president’s daughter from a jail in space overrun by its prisoners, which is the kind of Mad-Libs-in-the-video-rental-action-aisle plot that would have benefited from a psychoactive substance or six. And, no surprise, the movie that has resulted from the efforts of directors James Mather and Stephen St. Leger is loud, crude, violent, and dumb.
And I kinda loved it. Swagger goes a long way towards making these kinds of films appealing, and star Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential) provides more than enough of it to keep this particular spaceship airborne, at least until the ending literally forces the characters to parachute down from space onto a busy highway. Pearce is used to material of a more highbrow sort than this (he was brilliant as a sleazy playboy in Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce), but if he feels any discomfort about slumming, it’s certainly not in evidence on screen. In fact, Pearce seems to be having the time of his life tossing punches and punchlines around with a too-cool-for-this-gin-joint Bogartian panache (the credits scene, which can be seen here, is one of my favorite in recent memory for the way it combines those aforementioned P’s). And if his later repartee with the president’s daughter (a game Maggie Grace) doesn’t quite reach Tracy-and-Hepburn levels, it’s far more capital-m Movie Star personality than you’d expect from low-budget action schlock.
Beyond those leads, your expectations for this kind of thing will neither be exceeded nor unfulfilled. I did appreciate the film’s brute efficiency – it’s under 90 minutes and seems disinclined to waste your time, at least in any way other than the “you are watching a silly action movie” way (the main baddie orders in two hostage engineers to open a high-security locked door, shoots one, and informs the other that he hopes “this will circumvent the ‘It can’t be done’ discussion”).
In truth, I think I responded to this movie so positively simply because it bucks the trend of dourness that has dominated action cinema for the past decade. Chalk it up to Bourne or Batman or even the brooding Daniel Craig iteration of Bond, but levity in an action film is a strikingly rare thing these days. Morally speaking, this may not be a bad thing – it’s no coincidence that a disinclination to pair violence and laughs coincided with America’s exposure to terrorism and long-term war. But I have an almost Pavlovian nostalgia for the kind of dumb (mostly 80s spawned) fun where grievous violence could be paired with a high-five worthy quip. And Lockout will appeal to you if you are the kind of person for whom the phrases “Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” or “I like you – that’s why I’m going to kill you last” make you long for a Rolling Rock and a pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza in the somewhat musty basement of your friend with the well-stocked VHS collection. Lockout itself is well aware of its throwback nature, and has an appropriate enough response – when a character tells Pearce that he’s a “relic” that isn’t needed anymore, Pearce says something funny and does something to him with a cigarette lighter. It’s a touch indelicate, sure, but I laughed.